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Multiplying Addition Through Civil Rights


• Rolland Steele

I recently reconnected with a childhood classmate. We attended sixth grade together at a middle school in Louisville, Kentucky. And after 20 years of individual living and maturation, we found conversational common ground in the name of our math teacher, Ms. Selma McReynolds.

Happenstance did not carry her name into the conversation; she became the key point in the conversation before she ever taught us.

In the 1960’s, McReynolds was active in the major civil rights struggle taking place nationally and in her namesake hometown of Selma, Alabama. As a young adult, she saw the need for change in society, and she worked with others to make that change possible. Even before she reached the classroom, her life’s work and philosophy prepared her to impact the lives of her future students.

Rolland and Classmate._captionedjpgAnd impacted we were. It was an extraordinary advantage for each of my classmates to have a teacher who had crossed bridges of dissenting and seemingly incompatible cultures.

Our school district implemented a busing integration program as a part of a desegregation policy in the 1970s. The busing continued through the 1980’s, and our sixth-grade math class was a socioeconomic collage. Children of affluent collegiate basketball coaches and business executives recorded notes beside children whose family lives and daily perspectives were often bound by avenues of less fortunate circumstance. As students, we weren’t overtly held by racial discord, but we were confronted with the dividing nature of generational economic and educational deficiencies.

Through the unique factors surrounding each child, a teacher’s foremost responsibility is to teach. Still, some educators, like McReynolds, realize that you cannot teach to a child who is not receptive, and that a child’s reception depends on their ability to overcome the extraneous factors in their life.

McReynolds did not ignore our issues nor allow our individual lives to dictate our education.

Her classroom provided an alcove of equality. Adopting whole person training techniques gathered during her husband’s service in the military, McReynolds insisted upon the use of last names to encourage recognition of in-class identities. My class voted against the use of Mr. and Ms., but others adopted her courteous suggestion and gained exposure to a more stately discussion of ratios and percentages. Respectful communication happens more readily when using respectful words.

She confronted greater issues through conversations held with us as a class, and she counteracted personal issues by working with us as individuals and teaching us to work with one another. McReynolds didn’t simply manage or rule our class, she developed it. And infused within her delivery of arithmetic and higher reason, we learned civility.

Our differences were evident outside the class, but once we entered McReynolds’ room, our status depended on our attitude and effort. And, our success depended on the very success we championed within ourselves.  We discovered our value in our beings, not in our clothing or even in the coloring of our skin. We were all students.

Now, I am a father. With each new school year, I optimistically search to find in my children’s teachers the qualities I discovered originally in McReynolds.

Are these teachers serious about their craft? Are they continuing to learn themselves? Are they as conscious and determined as one willing to endure packed jailhouse floors to bring about greater change for society, to bring about change within my child?

The greatest teachers are those who help students learn beyond the required material. Of course, McReynolds rigorously implemented her lesson plans to ensure we all learned the class material. Still, the interaction between teacher and student has always been more than just facts and formulas in a book.

Societally proficient educators like McReynolds are able to bring together classrooms of different cultures and personalities to the benefit of all their students. Their influence will extend far beyond the classroom.

I was blessed to have McReynolds in my life, and I’m encouraged every time I meet other educators with the same gift to cultivate greatness within their students.


Every day of the year, teachers are working hard in and outside of classrooms, instilling a love of learning, going the extra mile, getting creative to help students learn…and so much more. Visit ExcelinEd.org/ThankYou to find ways to give your teacher the attention he or she deserves.


About the author


Rolland Steele

Rolland@ExcelinEd.org

Rolland Steele is a Regional Advocacy Associate for the Foundation for Excellence in Education.